When Buddhism arrived in China a couple of millennia back it found fertile ground to spread its beliefs, since the common Chinese religion of that time, Taoism, shared many similarities of view with the Buddha's teaching. The idea of dependent origination, for example, is a precise reflection of the philosophy presented in the first verse of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu.
But Taoism had always been extremely sparing of words. Tao Te Ching has only 5,000 characters in all. And in general, in Chinese thought the shorter the word the more potent its content. For example one-syllable words like Tao, Te, Wu, Yu, Li, Kung, Ho, etc. permeate Taoist philosophy. Irrespective of the content, the very locution of a mahaparaprajnamita would hardly fit into Chinese thinking. Thus, Taoist terms came to be used in the translations of the Buddhist texts. And these books were popular (the printing press was invented precisely to spread them), for in many ways Buddhist sutras would have seemed like valuable explications of the subtle parts of Taoist philosophy. For all its richness that philosophy does stop midstream; it "goes with the flow" rather than "crossing over." It is probably not too much to say that Taoism simplifies where Buddhism complicates. Lao Tzu suggested "letting understanding stop at what could not be understood." This doesn't leave any room for speculative Indian ideas, of reincarnation, or even "another shore." Of the ten sects of Buddhism that developed in China the one that most closely came to reflect Taoist influence was the Ch'an variation of the Mahayana. Particularly after the reformation of Hui-neng (638-713), Ch'an set about to "spread the seed widely" as Hui-neng's mentor had advised him. Ch'an embraced Taoists and Confucians as well as Buddhists, and lower classes along with educated aristocrats.
Whether it is history or mythology is open to debate by historians, but the story has that Hui-neng himself was an illiterate woodsman when he was enlightened. He overheard one line from the Diamond Sutra: "Let your mind function freely without abiding anywhere or in anything." (John Wu trans.) Note how easily this correlates with the "watercourse way" of Taoism's "go with the flow." In fact Hui-neng (supposedly - history is fuzzy) described himself as a "simple, mindless man of Tao," a phrase that recurs in the sermons of Huang-po and Lin-chi.
Lin-chi began his sermons by addressing his monks as "followers of Tao." The phrase "to attain Tao" was synonymous with enlightenment. The common metaphor was that Buddhism was the father and Taoism the mother of the child Ch'an.
A telling episode in Chinese history occurred in 845 AD when the (Taoist) emperor Wu-tsung proclaimed that all the orthodox Buddhist monasteries should be closed. Curiously he did not consider Ch'an monasteries to be Buddhist and overlooked them. Not only were the Ch'an monasteries spared, the prince Suan-tsung who would be the next emperor went to one of them, Hsien-kuan (Hsiang-yen's) to study. Huang-po came to visit and impishly made a point of doing obeisance to a statue of Buddha right under the Prince's nose. (In the following the Prince's lines reflect Hui-neng's teaching.)
Said Suan-tsung: "In our pursuit of Tao, we must not be attached to the Buddha, nor to the Dharma, nor to sanga. What does your reverence seek after in performing these rites of obeisance?"
Huang-po: "I am attached neither to the Buddha, nor to the Dharma, nor to sanga. I am only performing the usual rites."
Suan-tsung: "What is the use of rites?"
Huang-po gave him a slap.
Suan-tsung: "You are being too rough!"
Huang-po: "What kind of thing do you find here in this place that you should speak of 'rough' and 'refined'?" And he gave him another slap.
If this story makes it seem that Huang-po was a confirmed Buddhist it is well to keep in mind a line from one of his sermons: "Adoration of and devotion to all the Buddhas in the universe are nothing in comparison to following a single mindless man of Tao." (Note - this probably refers to Hui-neng.)
Here's some from a Lin-chi sermon: "The true follower of Tao does not grasp at the Buddha, nor at bodhisattvas, nor at the arhats, nor at the exceeding glories of the three realms. In his transcendental independence and untrammeled freedom, he adheres to nothing.… Spare yourself the vain labour of discriminating and grasping at appearances and in a single instant you will realize Tao with spontaneous ease."
Lin-chi gets pronounced Rinzai in Japanese and inspires the most famous branch of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Naturally as time passes the Taoist elements of the teaching recede and become rather invisible.
One Taoist philosopher whose spirit is quite evident in Lin-chi's school is Chuang Tzu from the 3rd century BC. In a way he could be considered "father of the koan" for he had written:
"He who replies to one asking about Tao, does not know Tao. Although one may hear about Tao, he does not really hear about Tao. There is no such thing as asking about Tao. There is no such thing as answering such questions. To ask a question which cannot be answered is vain. To answer a question which cannot be answered is unreal. And one who thus meets the vain with the unreal is one who has no physical perception of the universe, and no mental perception of the origin of existence."
(Chuang-tzu, p. 289, H.A. Giles translation, Shanghai, 1926).
Grr grr, yes, well, here perhaps is the source of all the crazy answers that Ch'an masters gave to the question of "What is Tao?" There is really quite a range:
Monk: What is Tao? Hsiang-yen: A dragon is singing in the ancient forest! [or dry woods, dry wood, old wood, etc. - the variations have persisted.] Monk: What is Tao? Yun-men: Go! [Chang Chung Yuan has "Go away!"] Monk Ho (later Chao-chou): What is Tao? Nan-chuan: Your everyday mind! Monk: What is Tao? Kuei-shan: Mindlessness is Tao. Monk: I do not understand. Kuei-shan: You need only grasp the one who does not understand. Monk: Who is the one who does not understand? Kuei-shan: No one else but your very own self.
Oy, Kuei-shan is so polite, Ch'an for Confucians.
But the turning of the question back upon the questioner is basic Ch'an practice, "who are you?" is the only answer worthy as a reply. It is "ad homonym" but Ch'an is essentially about self-realization, so everything else is off-topic.
Importantly, Hui-neng had noted that at core the individual identity and the Tao were not distinguishable. In non-duality the subject and object blend..
Another Ch'an master clearly trained in the Taoist classics was Tung-shan. An early conversation:
Ch'u: "Oh how wonderful, how wonderful! The ineffable realms of Buddha and Tao!"
Tung-shan: "I would not ask about the realms of Buddha and Tao. I only wish to know the man who is speaking of the realms of Buddha and Tao."
Tung-shan: "Buddha and Tao are but names and words; why don't you resort to the true doctrine?"
Ch'u: "What does the true doctrine teach?"
Tung-shan: "When you have got at the idea, forget about the words."
This last is a direct quote from Chuang-tzu.
The shift between concepts and reality was a Chinese preoccupation. Words were definitely a topic, and Chuang-tzu the "authority."
Ch'an masters had much to say about the limited possibilities of "words." The following is :from a sermon by Chan master Yun-men (d. 949 AD):
"...If you set out in quest of words and sentences, cudgeling your brains with their logical meanings, working over a thousand possibilities and ten thousand subtle distinctions, and creating endless questions and debates, all you will gain is a glib tongue, while all the time getting farther and farther away from Tao, with no rest for your wandering. If it could be found in the (sutras) why should there be a special transmission outside the scripture?...But if you have really found your true self, then you can pass through fire without being burnt...The important thing is your experiential realization of this state."
(The Golden Age of Zen, J. Wu, 1969, p. 164-165).
Perhaps, that "words" don't suffice to explain it, is the ultimate lesson of both Tao and Ch'an.
A final note:
Ch'an is empty, there is nothing in it. There is no room for any -ism, not Buddhism, not Taoism. Just plain empty. It is not a belief system. It is not a cosmogony. Who you are is all it is. Rudely, I interrupt my own essay to look back through the lens, and ask:
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